By Phil Brown
The spruce grouse is likely to vanish from the Adirondacks, perhaps within a decade, if the state fails to take steps to help the species, according to scientists.
In a draft recovery plan issued in February, the state Department of Environmental Conservation recommends both manipulating habitat on private timberlands to favor the spruce grouse and importing grouse to supplement the existing population.
The authors of the plan, DEC biologist Angelena Ross and her former professor, Glenn Johnson, estimate that only seventy-five to a hundred spruce grouse remain in the state. They are found only in lowland boreal habitat in the northwestern Adirondacks.
In the nineteenth century, the spruce grouse was more abundant, but much of its habitat was destroyed by the clear-cutting of spruce forests and the flooding created by logging dams. The Lows Lake dam, for example, flooded a water body known as Spruce Grouse Pond. Also, the grouse’s lack of fear of people made it an easy target for hunters, earning it the nickname “fool hen.”
The clear-cutting, damming, and hunting have ceased, but the bird’s numbers continue to plummet. Ross and Johnson say the population has declined more than 50 percent over the past two decades. One reason is that the grouse’s habitat is fragmented, so there’s no room for the population to expand. But a bigger reason may be that forest maturation—especially on the forever-wild Forest Preserve—has diminished the suitability of the grouse’s remaining habitat. Spruce grouse appear to prefer middle-aged forests with lots of ground cover for foraging and nesting.
“Efforts to increase the species’ abundance in New York must be undertaken to conserve the species and ensure its continued persistence in the state,” the authors write. If nothing is done, they say, there is an 85 percent likelihood that spruce grouse will be gone in a hundred years and a 35 percent likelihood that they will vanish by 2020.
Ross and Johnson are manipulating timber stands on private land to see what type of habitat the grouse like best. If the experiment succeeds, they want DEC to secure agreements with landowners to create grouse habitat. Because the habitat manipulation requires cutting trees, it cannot be undertaken on the forever-wild Forest Preserve.
They also recommend that DEC release at least thirty spruce grouse at two or more sites—assuming the imported birds are genetically compatible with the Adirondack variety. Most likely, the grouse would be captured in Ontario. Given the Adirondack grouse’s downward spiral, the authors say the reintroduction should take place as soon as possible after the genetic analysis is done and “well before 2020.”
But Larry Master, a wildlife expert from Lake Placid, questions the wisdom, in an era of climate change, of trying to save a bird in the Adirondacks that is at the southern extreme of its range and remains common in Canada.
“Unless a species is endangered throughout a significant portion of its range, I do not think we should be manipulating natural habitat for the sake of a single species or even a small suite of species. Such manipulation goes counter to conserving regional and global biodiversity,” said Master, who worked as a zoologist for the Nature Conservancy.
The spruce grouse should not be confused with the ruffed grouse, which is common throughout the Adirondacks. Ruffed grouse fly off nosily as people approach, whereas spruce grouse often let people come within a few feet before running or flying away. Also, the male spruce grouse sports a red eye patch not found on ruffed grouse.